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Tuesday, July 29 2014 @ 03:52 PM CDT

Against All Authority: Anarchism and the Literary Imagination (Book Review)

The leading anarchist thinkers see the role of literature as an instrument of questioning the status quo, showing alternatives, waking up the hearts and stimulating the minds. Humans have a unique sensitivity to narrative and it's often through story telling that the deepest insights into human condition and the widest exploration of alternative social setups can be achieved.

Against All Authority: Anarchism and the Literary Imagination by Jeff Shantz

Reviewed by Magda Healey

The leading anarchist thinkers see the role of literature as an instrument of questioning the status quo, showing alternatives, waking up the hearts and stimulating the minds. Humans have a unique sensitivity to narrative and it's often through story telling that the deepest insights into human condition and the widest exploration of alternative social setups can be achieved.

Jeff Shantz's book aims to offer a survey of the area in which anarchist thought meets literature.

Anarchy and with it, almost automatically, anarchism, has a bad name in most mainstream media, ostensibly confused with nihilism and associated with mass-murdering terrorists. I suspect that some of it is not really a confusion but a fear of what is potentially the most subversive ideology ever. Anarchism claims that people are capable of organising themselves freely and without coercion for mutual benefit without a government of any kind imposed on them. Having despatched the spectre of communism rather successfully (though many argue that the Soviet-bloc states had nothing to do with real communism), the governing elites assumed that anarchism was also largely exorcised or limited to fringe groups and eccentric academics.

But anarchism is not dead, providing (some) vestiges of political ideology to (some) sections of the anti-capitalist movement. This has recently managed to achieve wide visibility although is yet to gain any real political recognition or influence.

Literature has engaged with the anarchist thought in many ways, from depicting evil figures of nihilistic 'anarchists' to presenting literary visions of possible alternatives to the current way of organising social life. Anarchist literary critique exists, although (quite fittingly, really, considering the anarchist ideas) there isn't much of a prescriptive programme or a cannon of anarchist literature. Shantz offers an opening examination of the literary tropes of anarchism in the context of anarchistic social thought rather than a comprehensive analysis. The balance between the two aspects is occasionally tilted too far towards presentation of the latter (i.e. the anarchist social thought).

From Chesterton and Joseph Conrad to Joyce and Eugene O'Neil, Wole Soyinka to LeGuin, punk zines to Chomsky, Shantz offers students and scholars of literature a valuable and relatively unusual perspective (it's surprising how popular Marxist lit-crit is by comparison).

Against All Authority is a scholarly text, possibly a PhD dissertation adapted for a book publication, and has to be approached as such. Although I am a keen reader and have some interest in literary criticism, I don't have enough knowledge of this field (or anarchist thought for that matter) to venture a comparative judgement.

I was actually surprised in how readable, interesting and relevant I found some of the analyses in Against All Authority.

The chapter on how Chesterton and Conrad portrayed the Evil Anarchists was fascinating.

The examination of Joyce stretched the notions of anarchism a little, I felt, but in a very interesting way; as did the chapter on African writers (and Soyinka in particular).

I was a little disappointed with the Schantz's treatment of Le Guin, the one author on his list that I am a life-long fan of. Although he uses the case of Le Guin's to introduce the role of anarchist thought in speculative fiction, and shows the specific features of Le Guin's visions using the very apt example of The Dispossessed, he then covers Eye of the Heron (possibly the weakest novel Le Guin ever committed), approaches the The Left Hand of Darkness in a very limited fashion (Le Guin's speculations go well beyond notions of socially constructed genders and into the biology itself) and completely ignore her large fantasy output.

The penultimate chapter on DIY Anarchy covers current North American anarchist literary production. It is notably less lit-crit than the preceding ones and draws on voices of the current zine authors and communities. It offers an interesting summary of the attitudes and challenges faced by those who attempt to combine writing with their anarchist activism and it also (perhaps inadvertently) shines a light on what might be termed a fascinated disgust with which the participants in the DIY scene view the commercial or mainstream literary world. This attitude perhaps prevents them from seeing that less separates the commercial writers from them than they might like to imagine: from the co-operative writing that is common in for example science-fiction to their own presence on commercial platforms like Amazon.

The last chapter goes beyond the literary into the realm of sociology, introducing the emergent paradigm of autoetnography and linking it to the street idiom (e.g. people keeping diaries). I felt this was somewhat out of place in a book that dealt almost exclusively with fiction and also failed to see the newness or revolutionary character here – phenomenological approaches have a long tradition in social sciences while analysis of artefacts, from clothes to poems, songs and dairies has always been one of the mainstays of sociology.

Altogether, I felt that chapters dealing with individual works or authors were stronger than the more general ones. Although the discussion of socialist realism and the problems of format was quite illuminating it felt rather selective. There are many problems associated with notions of universal creation of (and participation in) art that touch on such fundamental questions as the possibility of true equality, role and need for value judgements in art and criteria for making those, sources of informal hierarchies in human societies, and maybe even the very essence of the human nature. Proponents of avant garde and literary art not concerned with commercial gain or wide readership have to contend with the fact that throughout history genuinely popular art was always to at least some extent based on some format or formula. Notions of art for art's sake are as undemocratic as literary production ordained from on high. Even rejecting government and commercial influences a writer needs to decide where his ultimate loyalty lies (with his own convictions - political and artistic - or with the readers' preferences).

This chapter felt also more dated than others particularly because of relaying too much on the work of Emma Goldman, whose pronouncements on the social position of writers and other intellectual proletarians appeared distinctly old-fashioned (and whose distinction between 'the artist' and 'the people' smack of 19th century dilemmas rather than 21st century ones).

The same was true for the chapter on drama and to lesser extent the whole of Against All Authority. I am sure Shantz has a reason to refer to Goldman so much, but to my lay eye (doubly lay - firstly, because I am not a literary theorist, and secondly, because I am not deeply immersed in anarchist thought) this reliance on an author that belongs neither to the canonical sources of the anarchist thinking nor to the up-to-date cutting edge badly affects the argument by making it somewhat outdated and yet not timeless.

From my entirely non-specialist position Against All Authority was an illuminating read and to a significant extent fulfilled its initial promise, striking the right balance between the number of themes it covers and the depth of analysis.

I found the language and style surprisingly accessible for a field known for its esoteric obscurity.

Shantz's prose is, obviously, scholarly but often lucid and embellished with some fanciful flourishes enlivening the usually dry standards of academic discourse. He writes with enough passion for the subject – from a decidedly anarchist position – to make the reader care and although this occasionally takes Shantz away from even a resemblance of a balanced judgement, it's a lesser evil in academia often scared of making any value judgements whatsoever. Still, it is worth mentioning that his desire to defend the anarchists from misrepresentation he shows a notable bias towards the cuddly ideas of Prince Kropotkin and pays scant attention to the more controversial likes of Bakunin for example.

Not for a general readership, but with a possible audience outside the strictest academia, Against All Authority is indeed as its author wished, a valuable opening in the exploration of the intersection between anarchist ideology and literary production. It made me want to re-read Le Guin's Dispossesed and led me to the fascinating offerings of the AK Press.

Noam Chomsky is the poster-child of North American anarcho-syndicalism and a required reading for anybody interested in revolutionary thought. John Pilger made it his life's task to offer stories of the dispossessed and forgotten crushed by the global cogs of power. Le Guin is worth reading regardless of political persuasions. One author that very openly explores political options – including a lot of anarchist but not particularly feminist versions - is the Scottish speculative fiction writer Ken MacLeod although we don't have reviews of the Fall Revolution series in which the political speculation is at its most vigorous. Speaking of Scottish sci-fi, Iain M. Banks' Culture presents a world with a strong anarchist streak.

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